Scanner at racetrack part of plan to identify horses at risk of leg fractures

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Equine PET requires the patient to be under general anesthesia since the limb needs to be still to capture the images. © UC Davis
Equine PET requires the patient to be under general anesthesia since the limb needs to be still to capture the images. © UC Davis

California’s Santa Anita racetrack, stung by a string of Thoroughbred deaths since Christmas, will install a high-tech scanner to provide state-of-the-art imaging of the vulnerable fetlock joint.

The Longmile Positron Emission Tomography (MILE-PET) Scanner will be installed in the on-site equine hospital at the raceway.

The Stronach Group, which owns the track, has contributed $US500,000 to support the purchase of the machine, which is able to provide images of the joint while a horse is standing.

The purchase is also backed by the Dolly Green Research Foundation. Green, a longtime horse owner, set up the foundation in 1984 to advance the health and welfare of Thoroughbreds.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) uses a small dose of radioactivity to detect changes in bone or soft tissue at the microscopic level. Using a ring of detectors, it acquires data in three dimensions, allowing for precise detection of subtle changes, which can be early signs of compromised structures. PET can also distinguish between active and inactive lesions, which can help pinpoint areas of concern.

The Stronach Group’s recently appointed chief veterinary officer, Dr Dionne Benson, said the machine was an important investment to help detect injuries on a microscopic level.

It will help identify horses with pre-existing conditions that can contribute to breakdowns, she said.

“This technology will help to identify the injuries that tend to be the most dangerous and are not detectable using the current technology.”

While PET scan technology has been used in human medicine for more than a decade, it is rare for horses to undergo a PET scan.

In January 2019, the first MILE-PET scan on a standing horse was successfully performed at the University of California, Davis, through a project led by veterinarian Mathieu Spriet, along with Brain Biosciences and the Longmile Veterinary Imaging division.

The Longmile engineering team developed the concept of an open-able ring, which allows scanning other regions of the horse limb, including the fetlocks, while a horse is standing so as to avoid sedation.

The scanner will first go to the Center of Equine Health at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for validation, research and continued analysis.

The Santa Anita track is set against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo: Elf assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia
The Santa Anita track will make a high-tech scanner available for the care of racehorses. Photo: Elf assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

After that, it will be available for use at Santa Anita this fall, coinciding with the track hosting the Breeders’ Cup for a record 10th time.

Craig Fravel, who is president of the Dolly Green Research Foundation, said: “PET devices promise the sort of breakthrough we have been looking for in detecting and understanding pre-existing bone injury.”

Stronach Group’s chair and president, Belinda Stronach, said the company wanted to make every resource available to aid horsemen in determining the fitness of their horses for racing and training.

Spieret, an associate professor at the university who has been the principal investigator for the project, said: “This is the most exciting development in equine imaging since standing MRI in the early 2000s.

“The development of the standing equine PET scanner will change the diagnostic approach to fetlock remodeling in racehorses, and to many other areas of equine imaging.”

Dr Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said: “You cannot overstate how significant an advancement this is in equine diagnostic imaging.

“PET is an advanced nuclear imaging technique and Santa Anita is already the home of the Dolly Green Nuclear Scintigraphy facility, which was the first of its kind when it was installed.”

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